Masked by Design - Chapter Eleven
The phone in the office rang, and Erik crossed his arms then pressed his back to the wall before entering his place of work. He leaned over just enough to be able to peek inside what used to be his respite, and now was his own personal torture chamber. Again the shrill ring took over his ears and he tapped his foot waiting.
The first time Kristine heard a normal phone go off she’d turned around the room with her eyes wide as if there were a monster running toward her.
He frowned and shook his head, finally showing her the phone that, heaven forbid, was attached to the wall.
She tilted her head from side to side and smiled when she heard the dial tone while he had wondered when he turned into an old man.
However, there was one small benefit to one of his most hated devices in the world, once Kristine dubbed the phone cool, she began answering it.
The phone was in its third ring, before he finally got what he waited for.
“De Anton Architecture, this is Kristine, may I help you?” Her cheery voice filled the air, and he closed his eyes.
As he listened to her one-word responses to whoever was on the line, he banged his head on the wall behind him and tried to think about what to do with her.
Just over a week ago he swooped in, took her down to his music room, played music for her, and made it blatantly clear that, although the universe would be attracted to Trevor, he did not run on that side of the fence. When she shed a tear, he knew he had to have her. There was a connection there, something he never felt with anyone else.
He could have kissed her then.
Perhaps he should have kissed her then.
Actually, he knew he should have kissed her then.
But there was only one issue.
What happened after the kiss?
It was that thought, the knowledge there would be an after that made him walk away, leaving her confused, and him frustrated.
Instead of an after kiss, they ended up with the past week—one where they barely spoke, except about work or her studies, and he needed to keep it that way.
No matter what someone like Professor Warren said, no matter how Erik felt around her, no matter the fact she still continued to glance over at him with an expression of wonder mixed with confusion, he could not entangle this poor girl into the shambles of the life he led, barely a shell of a life.
But damn, he wanted her.
“Mr. De Anton isn’t in at the moment, may I take a message?” Her voice was light, a ray of light mixed with sugar syrup he wanted to lap off his finger.
There was a pause in the conversation while Kristine took her message. He relished those little pieces of paper she wrote down for him using script. Few people wrote cursive anymore and hers was as beautiful as the woman who penned it.
“I can set a time up for you to talk to Mr. De Anton tomorrow afternoon if you like.”
Erik nodded. Both he and Trevor schooled her on taking phone calls once she became enthralled with the phone. Rule number one, no one, absolutely no one, spoke to him without a set appointment.
“And this is to review the finishes in your home, correct?” she asked.
After another pause she continued, “No, most architects don’t involve themselves in interior design, but in this case, I would take his advice. After all, you’re getting a De Anton home, and he always has a specific vision in mind.”
Erik nodded and maybe he puffed up his chest a bit at the pride in her voice. The fact she learned how he did business and knew how to answer these questions was oddly comforting and arousing all at the same time. When was the last time a woman knew anything about him? Maybe never.
Perhaps he just needed to go in and kiss her after all.
“All right, so I have you down for tomorrow afternoon.” Kristine told the client the time and the date.
At the mention of the date, he froze, and slid his back down the wall.
How hadn’t he realized? How did it catch up on him? How was it that he didn’t spend the last several days counting down until he drank himself into a stupor and tried to forget?
How was it already eleven years since the world exploded and took his face with it?
He shut his eyes and attempted to block out the memory of flashes that ended in shooting pain, losing someone he considered his family, and darkness.
Lately, the only date he concerned himself with was that of Kristine’s test.
A wave of nausea burned through him, he broke out into a sweat, and once he heard Kristine hang up the phone, he forced himself up, and stormed into his office. “Kristine!”
She jumped and turned toward him. “Erik?”
He ran his hand through his hair and wiped the sweat off his brow. “Kristine.”
“Are you all right?” She tossed her notepaper aside and dashed over to him, her hand reaching up to the masked side of his face.
In a flash he caught her wrist, the fire within stoked in an instant, and he tossed her hand away before it burned them both. “Never!”
She gasped and stepped back, her eyes large, her skin pale. “I wasn’t…”
“You weren’t what?” His teeth ground together. He wanted her to say it, mention it, make this easier.
She straightened. “I’m not even going to say it.” With a huff, she turned, scooped up her bag, slung it over her shoulder, and marched passed him right toward the exit.
Only when she actually stepped out of the office did he call to her. “Where are you going?” He dashed forward. This wasn’t over. He needed to hear her talk about his mask, how she was going to swipe off it his face, then look at him not with adoration and magic, but with horror before she ran out of his life.
“I have to study.” Her voice faded as she made it down the first flight of stairs.
He went after her, nearly tripping on his own two feet. “You don’t have class tonight!” Now she couldn’t leave. What had he done? “You’re studying here!” In fact, before he got distracted with her phone answering skills and tomorrow’s ominous anniversary date, he was planning on a full study session for her impending test, anything to keep his mind off of wanting her. Of course, when she studied and answered questions then her nose scrunched up in thought, or when she looked up to the ceiling exposing her gorgeous neck, he wanted her even more.
“I can study on my own.” As if she were struggling for air, she gasped the words. The click of her heels on the marble floor near the front door tapped out the seconds he had to stop her from leaving.
In a move straight out of the days when he was much more cunning, agile and fit, he leapt down the second flight of stairs, landed with a thud, and somehow managed to jump and slide between Kristine and the door.
He held his arms out, blocking her way.
“What is it, Erik?” Kristine crossed her arms.
He wanted to speak, wanted to tell her she couldn’t leave, wanted to tell her a million things, but his throat dried out and every breath was as if he was grinding his lungs over sandpaper. In any effort to compose himself after his exertion, he bent over.
Kristine tapped her foot. “Erik!”
He held up one finger. If he could just swallow, he could live. Maybe, maybe not, he wasn’t sure. Architecture didn’t do much for physical fitness he supposed.
“What is the matter with you?” She stomped her foot in front of him.
At last he managed to clear his throat, take a breath, and lift his head. Habit alone caused him to put his hand over the masked side of his face to ensure it was secure.
Before he could bring his hand down, direct the attention away from his most hated accessory, she put her hand over his.
He tensed and went to push her away, but she caught his other hand. “Don’t.”
Caught in a stalemate of sorts, they stared at one another.
Finally, she broke the silence. “I would never remove this without your permission. Know that, Erik.” She moved her fingers slightly over until she was actually touching his mask.
No one, aside from him, ever touched it. No one should have to deal with the horrid thing. “Before…” His voice trailed off, not wanting to speak about it. He really never wanted her to look at him any other way but with that wide-eyed adoration, and it would all end the second she really saw him.
“Before, you came in yelling my name, and I wanted to know if you were all right.” She stepped closer. “I just reached for you, but I didn’t think about where.”
He studied her face, gazed into her eyes, blue with darker flecks of blue, so gorgeous like a sparkling spring before the sun rose. “Why didn’t you think about it?”
She licked her lips and inhaled. “Because it doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it does.” He resisted the urge to shove her away from him.
“My opinion is mine.” She never looked away from his face.
For whatever reason, maybe to test her, maybe to get it over with, or maybe he didn’t know, he slipped his hand out from under hers, and allowed her to press her palm to his mask.
Since the day he picked up his specially commissioned masks and ensured they fit, no one had touched the mask, or that side of his face. In a way, it was more intimate than if she were caressing his skin. The pressure, the contact, the fact it was Kristine was too much, so to anchor himself in the real world and make sure he didn’t fall over, he put his hand on her hip. “What if I said your opinion was wrong?” His voice didn’t even sound like his own.
She didn’t move her hand. If anything, she spread out her fingers to cover more surface area. “Then I would say that you may be able to control a lot, Erik, but you cannot control my opinions, and you cannot control what I feel.”
Petulant and perfect, he shook his head. “And what is it you feel?”
Rather than answer, she stepped closer, stood up on her tiptoes, and brushed her lips against his.
It was a light kiss, a feather floating over his mouth, but enough to stoke his fire.
Right as she pulled back, he wrapped his arm around her waist, pulled her to him, and did as he wanted, as he dreamed. For the first time, he really kissed her.
She melded into him, her lips soft and her mouth warm and welcoming. The instant their tongues connected and he tasted her, he knew his life would never be the same.
Something about her made him want to encompass her, hold her tight, and protect her. At the same time, his body reacted, and he also wanted to bend her back, taste every inch of her, and make love to her until she screamed his name.
He didn’t remember the last person he kissed. No one recalled items that seemed of little importance and, at the time whenever it happened with whomever it happened with, he never thought it would be his last. Did anyone ever really know what the last time for anything was?
However, with Kristine, he now had a first. She was the first to touch his mask, first female to come into his life, first to kiss him since he was destroyed.
Breathless, she gasped and broke the kiss.
He stared down at her and rubbed his thumb along her bottom lip. If they continued, her lips would be delightfully swollen, ripe and ready for him to devour.
A slight smile shined on her face, a bit of naughty, knowing, and questions all at the same time.
“I’m going to go study.” She gave him another light kiss on his lips and moved back.
Before he opened the door for her, he ran his hand through her hair. She was a first. One always remembered their first.
She waved. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. The word reverberated in his head as he watched her get in that jalopy of hers and drive away. He slammed the door shut and locked it. She may be a first, but because of tomorrow’s anniversary, she would also have to be a last. This one he would remember.
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